Richard Kadrey Creates a Fantasy of Decadence
No matter the factors which might differentiate us from one another, there is a general truth which applies to all human beings, and it’s the fact we are constantly seeking sources of pleasure in our daily lives. The longer we spend without experiencing what we identify as pleasure, the more mental strain we are accruing and the less life becomes enjoyable in general. Over humanity’s history, people have constantly sought to explore the boundaries of pleasure, many times taking things to the extreme and giving rise to the concept of hedonism. However, too much of anything does end up being a bad thing, something the people of Lower Proszawa are about to learn in Richard Kadrey’s The Grand Dark.
Taking place right after the Great War, we are taken to the above-mentioned city, freshly recovering from the terror and grief of the past few years. With freedom in their grasp, the people begin to revel in celebrations like never before, indulging in virtually all the imaginable vices humanity could come up with. However, as the climate of hedonism continues to prevail, the people find themselves slowly blinded to the realities of a changing world around them, which include the arrival of intelligent automatons stealing jobs and genetically-engineered pets which also serve as beasts of war.
In the slums of the city, among all the people looking for nothing but fun and pleasure, is Largo the bike messenger, himself a drug addict… but one with a very ambitious plan. Knowing all of the city’s secrets like the back of his hand, he yearns at a chance for a promotion in social status, to work with the elite towering above everyone else, free from the filth in the streets. As luck would have it, he gets just such an opportunity, but discovers a little too late just how dangerous a person’s dreams can be in Lower Proszawa. Few share his vision for the future, and much more powerful people have equal or greater ambitions… not to mention, the threat of a new war already looms on the horizon.
A Portrayal of Human Darkness
Richard Kadrey has always had an absolutely mesmerizing talent for building different worlds than what we’re used to and populating them with remarkable characters, in one way or another. With The Grand Dark, I feel like the author has probably done one of his best works so far in creating an extremely memorable world which feels quite different from anything I can remember, blending together elements of history, science-fiction, and even steampunk.
While the story starts off relatively slowly as we follow Largo on his delivery routes, it’s actually the perfect set-up for us to explore the city with him and learn about its unusual ways. Kadrey’s descriptions always feel piercing in a certain way, playing on the reader’s senses and doing everything possible to thrust the reader into this world. We quickly get the sense it’s the kind of place where the sun never shines, where a perpetual haze governs the streets as well as people’s lives and ambitions. Mixing this with the appearance of automatons and genetically-engineered chimeras creates a world equally hostile and repulsive as it is curious and begging for investigation.
Needless to say, the kind of people inhabiting this city are, for the most part, reflections of its sordid nature. There certainly aren’t many rays of hope shining down through the everlasting haze, and most of the people we come across aren’t exactly pleasant, with some of them being downright despicable. However, I never felt as if I got tired from meeting these people because Kadrey did an amazing job at integrating them into the story as an essential part of the scenery, turning them into extensions of the city itself. Besides, many of them do have interesting stories to tell, even if we are sometimes left to fill in the blanks on our own.
The Bike Messenger’s Route
Stepping away from all the world-building and such, I’m sure you’re eager to know a little more about the story itself. As I said before, things pick up somewhat slowly in the beginning as we are simply following Largo on his daily routine, learning what his life is like for the most part. From a plot development perspective, I did feel as if things were dragging a tiny bit, but once again, I never minded it for the amount of information we are fed about the world in the meantime. However, I can see how people who are more interested in the advancement of the plot more than anything would have a bit of trouble getting started here.
However, I do highly recommend you get over this initial bump for it doesn’t take long at all before the story begins to escalate further and further towards what feels like insanity. Apart from new elements becoming introduced more and more often, as Largo works his way up the company chain he visits different parts of the city, making increasingly mysterious deliveries and basically going on one small adventure after the next. The pace also picks up quite a fair about about halfway through and helped to keep me glued until I got to the excellent finale, even if the main character made my interest falter a tiny bit at times.
Indeed, as you might have gathered, Largo isn’t exactly the typical likeable protagonist we’re all accustomed to these days. He is a drug addict and just like the people around him, he is the product of a society reveling in decadence and hedonism. He can definitely have his moments of cleverness, but on a few occasions it struck my just how pointless his life felt. He is, ultimately, a weaker character trying to find a place for himself in a city rife with chaos, and while I understand this makes him more relatable in a certain sense, it also does detract from our ability to enjoy him as our pilot through this story.
The Final Verdict
The Grand Dark by Richard Kadrey is, all things considered, an extremely unique and engaging dark fantasy novel. Though it does have a couple of shortcomings, they are more than compensated for in my opinion by the quality of the world-building, with the author creating one of the most memorable universes I can recall off the top of my head. I highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys this sort of dark fantasy mixed in with science and steampunk elements.
Richard Kadrey is an American novelist from San Francisco, as well as a freelance writer and photographer. His greatest claim to fame is the Sandman Slim novel, listed on Barnes & Nobles as one of the thirteen “Best Paranormal Fantasy Novels of the Decade”. He has also penned Metrophage and Dead Set, as well as some non-fiction books including The Catalog of Tomorrow and From Myst to Riven.